Cameron’s impatience is no reason for the fire-sale reform of public services

David Cameron said yesterday that the government has “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our public services”; “If not now, then when?” he cried.

It’s rubbish, of course. Governments can reform public services whenever they like. The last government could, and should, have reformed them in the mid-2000s when there was full employment and plenty of money about. It’s more effective to restructure when there is cash for investment and employment opportunities to soak up the redundant public servants. Taking government spending out of the economy has less of an impact and public sector organisations can take their time and plan the changes properly. All of which was a good argument for doing it in the mid-2000s and, now, for delaying it until the economy picks up.

The UK’s debt is cited as the reason for the urgency but, while the level of borrowing is alarming it is not yet a cause for panic. Britain is not Greece. We need to reduce our debt and we need to reform our public services but we’ve still got some time to play with. The rushed reforms proposed by the government are unnecessary and will almost certainly be counterproductive.

Of course, what David Cameron really meant was a once-in-a-lifteime opportunity for him, rather than for the country as a whole. He and his supporters have a chance to redesign the state in accordance with their view of the world. With a majority dependent on Lib Dem support and no guarantee of winning a second term, the Prime Minister needs to strike while he can. The financial crisis provides an ideal opportunity to fan the panic and build the case that action has to be drastic and rapid. If he leaves it too long, the economy might start to recover and the imperative could be lost.

Philosopher-football manager Arsene Wenger may have started something when he talked about the “dictatorship of the moment” on Saturday. He was referring to the current fashion for sacking football managers after a couple of bad results but, as Chris Dillow said, the term is an apt description of the behaviour of the banks in the run up to their collapse, or any situation in which a certain view is widely accepted and it then becomes almost impossible to suggest an alternative without being ridiculed and ostracised.

The Observer’s secret civil servant describes how the ‘dictatorship of the moment’ is being created in Whitehall. The evangelists for reform insist that the programme must go ahead, deftly filtering out any data which contradicts their stance, while the pragmatists push back, asking hard questions and making people feel uncomfortable. He warns:

The real danger in the months ahead is that, as day-to-day events become more difficult, the fantasists will become ever more popular. The prime minister needs realists around the cabinet table and ministers need realists to advise them. The troubling truth is that, even in a vibrant democracy such as ours, senior civil servants and cabinet ministers can retreat to their ivory tower, reset the boundary of what they view as acceptable advice and make it clear that there are some things they do not want to hear. If that happens, only the most career-limiting, self-destructive officials and ministers will speak their mind.

At which point, the dictatorship of the moment is complete. It becomes an absolute certainty that only radical and rapid reform will do. The few who dare to speak out can kiss their careers goodbye.

As Paul Corrigan said yesterday, and I noted back in August, government rhetoric is attempting to divide us into hawks and doves. If you are not in favour of these reforms you must therefore be a Luddite who doesn’t want any reform at all. “You’re either with us or against us” is an old political trick and one that has had messy results. It is possible, of course, to be neither hawk nor dove. To stretch the bird analogy to its limit, some of us are owls; we believe the hunting will need to be done but we think it is a bit early yet.

It is true that we need to cut the UK’s deficit and reform public services. Demographics, health inflation and looming pension and PFI liabilities mean that the welfare state cannot continue as it is for very much longer. We don’t have to do it this year though. It doesn’t need to start now and it doesn’t need to be as rapid as the government claims. It is possible to reform our public services in a more measured and considered way.

Britain does not need to be bounced into a distressed fire-sale reform of public services just because David Cameron is in a hurry. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Prime Minister but the rest of us can afford to wait.

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9 Responses to Cameron’s impatience is no reason for the fire-sale reform of public services

  1. Pingback: Cameron’s impatience is no reason for the fire-sale reform of public services - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. PinkPolitika says:

    Thank you Rick. Very much to the point.

    I shall start to use the ‘dictatorship of the moment’ idea; and maybe you will find the term ‘de-government’ ( http://pinkpolitika.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/incompetent-conservative-government-or-de-government/ ) useful at some juncture?

    There is indeed a reason for this unseemly haste, but , as you say, it’s perhaps not the one the PM and his colleagues appear to suggest.

  3. Strategist says:

    “we need to cut the UK’s deficit and reform public services. Demographics, health inflation and looming pension and PFI liabilities mean that the welfare state cannot continue as it is for very much longer. ”

    Seems to fall into the trap of thinking cutting the deficit can only equal cutting the welfare state.
    We can easily afford all the welfare state our young, old and sick will ever need. Technology makes us so productive that the idea that we are unable to afford a safety net absurd.

    The only luxury we need to give up is that of making taxation optional for the major corporations and the super-rich individuals. Isn’t a “reverse tax revolt” by the 99% against the 1%, where the citizens of the US and EU insist that the rich pay their dues a plausible possibility?

  4. Rick says:

    Strategist – I agree that we need to chase down tax avoiders as far as we can. I also know that it is devillishly difficult to frame legislation to do so. As you say, co-operation between US and EU countries would make it a lot easier.

    Tchnology, too, is a double edged sword. the availability of new treatments and drugs is one of the main causes of health inflation. The more that can be done, the more people want it to be done.

    Even if we could tax corporations and rich individuals more effectively I’m not sure it would plug the gap.

    E&Y and the 2020 Trust reckon we will need to spend 52% of GDP by 2030 if we want public services equivalent to the ones we have now. And that’s before you factor in the PFI debts and pension liabilities. Even the Swedes are not up for that sort of tax take these days and I doubt that the British ever will be.

  5. PinkPolitika says:

    Yes, Rick and Strategist, indeed as you say.

    But I still think there’s a deeper political / philosophical theme underlying all this grossly indecent haste.

    As I argue in my link ( http://pinkpolitika.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/incompetent-conservative-government-or-de-government/ ), the fundamental rationale of the Tories seems to be to achieve de-governance as rapidly as possible.

    In other words, we’re moving towards a state in which Government, by its own current volition (does this include the LibDems?), has very little to do, because everything’s been off-loaded – and it’ll just be tough luck if you’re not amongst those who have sufficient resources (such as they might be) and / or influence to get things going in your direction.

    That’s the free market for you.

    Whilst we are all running around, fretting and worrying about the details, I’m now convinced (see what you think?) that the new powers-that-be are quietly and efficiently getting on with de-governing the country. On our part, woods and trees and all that…

    Where that will leave the UK is anyone’s guess; but I know it won’t be anywhere that those currently debating the (de-)merits of various emerging and apparently incoherent policies would like to be.

    There is A Plan; it’s just not the one/s progressive policy critics are addressing.

  6. PinkPolitika says:

    Rick: PS I know you said above that ‘the financial crisis provides an ideal opportunity to fan the panic and build the case that action has to be drastic and rapid’.

    But how this links with the so-called Big Society and the rest of social policy etc is usually perceived only at the superficial (I use this term in the formal, not judgemental, sense) level – i.e. at the level of ‘Oh, no funding’, rather than at the deeper level of ‘Yup, that’s the result of the real intention, which is no governance beyond the absolutely (in Tory terms) essential’.

    From the Government’s perspective, the more we fuss over detail, whether economic or social policy, the better they can continue their chosen redirection of what ‘government’ means, essentially untroubled by the likes of us.

    So I see the urgent priority now as
    (a) getting to the bottom of what the Tory leadership really and imminently intends for us all, and
    (b) then finding a way to share that perception in the context of widely held but no longer appropriate public understandings / assumptions of the UK’s welfare state, building of course on the sort of analysis you offer here.

    The challenge for those who are ‘progressives’ is actually more immediately imperative even than the self-imposed challenge which the Tory leadership has quietly appropriated for itself….

    There ain’t, as you so rightly say, much time.

  7. Pingback: Tory ‘dictatorship of the moment’ … LibDems, where are you? | Strictly Politically

  8. Strategist says:

    Pink Politika – on his blog Excuse Me While I Step Outside (from which’s blogroll I found this fine site) Charlie McMenamin argues that

    “what this lot are doing is much more akin to Stalin’s scorched earth policy in WW2… They’re simply trying to lay waste to territory they don’t expect to occupy for very long, to make it unusable by their opponents.”

    - which I think is your point too.

    Rick – “E&Y and the 2020 Trust reckon we will need to spend 52% of GDP by 2030 if we want public services equivalent to the ones we have now.”

    That’s an interesting claim – what’s the definition of ‘equivalent’ they are using to arrive at that, and what economic trend growth rate are they assuming?

    “As you say, co-operation between US and EU countries would make it a lot easier.”

    It would help no end if the British establishment stopped thinking that our national interest is best served by being the international elite’s cuckoo in the EU nest.
    Britain could shut down the Caymans, Jersey etc, and the Germans/French could shut down Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Monaco within months if they wanted. The list of options left to the tax avoiders would be looking pretty thin. They’d probably prefer to pay their taxes than risk the lot by putting it into Hong Kong or Dubai.

  9. Pingback: Forget ‘Big Society’; it’s ‘Binning Services’, as the Tories slash and burn | Strictly Politically

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